According to the dictionary, a fling is a “short, spontaneous sexual relationship.” I never had one. Okay, I had one: I was in college on spring break in Florida and with enough cheap beer, the lead singer of the cover band became a stand-in for Bono, never mind he spoke with a Jersey accent instead of an Irish brogue. But bookending that one night, I had always fallen hard and fast into long term relationships. Sure, I went through a phase of collegiate hookups fueled by alcohol, a lot of alcohol, but what happened under those conditions was mostly forgotten by morning. The alcohol, as Peggy Orenstein suggests in her new book Girls and Sex, creates “compulsory carelessness... a way to signal that the sex was meaningless.” Also, in 1990, if you were a girl, and you wanted sex, soberly sought sex, you were a slut. Easier to circumvent that label with a few Jell-O shots.
I met my now ex-husband when I was twenty-two, and within a week, we were, for all practical purposes, living together. I kept my apartment for over a year to placate my more conservative parents, an expensive extra closet. Suffice it to say, when my friends were having their exploratory entanglements, discovering what they liked and how many ways they liked it, I was swooning over an All-Clad stainless steel saucier and Pottery Barn accent pillows. Sex was pleasant, domestic, often fraught for me, and never often enough for him. For the tenure of our marriage, I had enough of the latent Catholic in me to believe in the commitment of our marital vows: fidelity at face value. Maybe it was just my lazy libido. Maybe I should have looked more closely at phone records.
I had my first adult fling (unaided by Jell-O shots) six months after the divorce, hopefully long enough so that it wasn’t in angry reaction to his infidelity and my need to have my self-esteem buttressed. Because that was the default rumination long into the dark hours of night after learning about the affair. Why wasn’t I good enough? The voice of deficit and shame crept in, undermining every ego inflating belief I had about myself. Leaning into the mirror to apply mascara, instead of noticing what I think are my prettyish eyes, I focused on the lines winging out from their corners, or pulling on my jeans, I was enraged by the folds at my tummy, or snapping on my bra, I was deflated by my breasts which were no longer perky after breastfeeding two babies. Always, the self-directed spite flaring up as I compared myself to her, the younger, tinier, shinier her. I am not enough. She is more.
Many of us hear this voice in some form that whispers, “You aren’t good enough to be chosen, to be wanted, to be loved. Not for real. Not for keeps.” As a girl, I was obsessed with horses and imagined galloping over fields and fences. When my parents finally sent me away to a ritzy horseback riding camp, I was ecstatic and terrified: me vs. rich girls. At the evaluation, I was sent into the paddock and told to mount up. The other campers, accomplished riders, sat on the fence watching me. I fumbled my way onto the horse, forgot everything I’d imaginatively rehearsed in my head, and kicked the horse hard in the sides. The girls exploded in derisive laughter. That was it. I’d shown myself to be a fraud and would not be chosen. For the rest of my two weeks, I spent most of my hours sequestered on the tennis court, thwacking balls lobbed by the ball machine. Too scared to ride again.
There are so many ways we convince ourselves we will never be enough. Too skinny. Too fat. Too awkward, too inhibited. Too crazy, too unhinged. What might it mean to be enough? Not just to be sufficient, but to be someone in an ample supply? Ample in feeling, ample in body, ample in desire, ample in truth, ample in love?
And so the fling. Definition #2: in Old Norse, a fling is defined as “a reckless movement of the body.” This is closer to what I now choose open-eyed as an adult learning what it is that I like and the ways that I like it. Not that I advocate freewheeling promiscuity, at least not for me. I tend to flood things with meaning: words, gestures, touch, breath. It’s why I burrow into etymology. Words have history and weight and substance and backwards and forwards implications. You say “fling,” and mean “meaningless sex.” I say “fling” and mean “a wild connection that breaks things apart and puts them back together in disruptive creation.” Everything all at once and fraught with equal significance. But I can choose without regret now since I choose sober (alas, the Bono look-alike was a pasty-faced 7-11 clerk by day) and unafraid (or at least, have the courage to have courage).
New York City. July. A coffee shop in the West Village. I’d been pretending to be cool but was mostly just feeling alone. As I was getting up to leave, the most objectively beautiful man I’d ever seen started talking to me. Taller than me, so I had to look up into brown eyes that I could swim in. I think I wobbled.
“I like your boots,” he said.
I laughed. Was he hitting on me? Honestly, no one had hit on me in the twenty years I’d been with my ex, so I didn’t know how to read the signs. Maybe he just really liked my boots? They were great: soft brown calfskin, stacked heels. We chatted, back and forth, prickles of electricity. I was a writer from Pennsylvania; he was an actor and musician from L.A. Though it was difficult talking because he had this wide open smile which fell across me. In my sixth grade diary, I pasted photographs of Rob Lowe scissored from Teen Beat and surrounded them with purple glitter-glued hearts. So when this man talked to me, it was hard to focus because a glitter-glue heart throbbed around his face. He asked for my name, so shaky-handed, I wrote it and my blog address on a slip of paper and left. That was that, I thought. Dreamy. Tuck it away.
Except. He emailed that night. He’d read my blog and connected. The end of love, the sadness, the resurfacing. What better way to seduce a writer than to tell her you were seduced by her words? We met for coffee, talked breathlessly. Time constraints: I was going back to Pennsylvania, he was going back to L.A. When he kissed me? A movie kiss. He was an actor, so he maybe had it down; maybe he had the whole thing down, and I hadn’t learned anything at all from my ex’s infidelity and my naïve, wholehearted trust. Too good to be true, right? Actor/Musician/Beautiful/6’3’’ (to my 5’10”)/Funny/Serious. A script, one of those romances that I dismiss as easy, unearned froth. But it felt real and simply, my heart stopped. Cliché, I know.
The rest of the story is mine and his.
We only had a few days. That’s the definition of a fling. But because I tend to speak my truth, I suggested (oh-hopeless-please-pick-me-don’t-laugh-at-me-from-the-fence) that maybe we could attempt the impossible, or at least see if it was a tiny bit possible, and see each other again. Isn’t it worth the risk of getting hurt for a wondrous payoff? Here’s where my bipolar brain comes in: happy = HAPPY and he was making me HAPPY. Bipolar brain sped up: I could raid my 401k and fly out to L.A. on the weeks I didn’t have custody. I didn’t say this, but I did say this:
“My whole brain lights up around you,” I said. Maybe this was a bit much. But I don’t play small anymore or run off to the safe tennis courts.
We returned to our geographical corners. He called a few times, which was confusing because that meant maybe more, and we texted, and never inside a texting “relationship” and on brain filled with sunshine, I texted too much. Terrible, a little shameful, but this was now me: better too much than not enough, better careening than hiding.
You know where this is going. It was, for him, a fling: definition #1. Which is okay. (Not really. But in time, it will be.) I fell hard because that is what I do. That is what recovery and wholeheartedness teach me. I feel it all now: what is wondrous and what is painful because it tells me who I am finally becoming. Irrationally, my heart was broken. But here is the important point: my heart was not broken by anything that creates genuine damage like infidelity, but by the bliss of hope which is damage that can be repaired, which is damage that teaches me what to long for next.